I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of about 11. I just didn’t want to eat animals when I was a child, and eventually I put my foot down (or rather stamped my feet down a lot) and refused. Some of my family thought this was vaguely amusing and would swiftly pass, and some thought I’d become malnourished, and ultimately starve and die. The former camp spent a lot of time waving meat in my face and eating it with caricature enthusiasm. The latter did a lot of shouting and ranting.
My mother took a more practical approach, and refused to cater to my bizarre needs. She would serve me with a typical meat-based meal every single evening, and I would just eat the salad and the potatoes, or whatever veg was safely at the side of the plate and not contaminated by meat juices. She would also make a terrible scene of the ‘think of all the starving children in Africa!’ variety every single dinner time when I left the meat untouched. I pretty quickly learned to cook for myself, and so my discoveries of fake meats began.
So, borrowing the classic film title, here are my thoughts on some meat alternatives:
Tofu – If done well, tofu can be really wonderful stuff. It is also really varied, and can be made in different styles, so it doesn’t get boring. I highly recommend stinky tofu for those of you who are feeling brave!
TVP – mmm, nothing says food like the abbreviation of ‘Textured Vegetable Protein’ – yummy! But despite the name, it actually really can be delicious. And it’s amazingly cheap. You can buy it dried in most health food shops, and then just boil it with some water to soften it up. Flavoured with soy sauce and nutmeg, it can be delightful.
Tofu – if done badly, of if using the wrong variety, tofu can be pretty dreadful. If you’ve ever tried to use soup-tofu in a stir-fry you’ll know what I mean. It can become slimy and slick, and can ruin a dish. Pre-frying is generally must, and checking the packaging to see what it’s intended for is essential.
Quorn – some people may disagree with me, but I just really dislike the flavour of quorn. It has a slightly sour taste somehow. I’m also not too keen on the dry texture. It’s alright as mince in Bolognese or lasagne, but I’d stick to TVP otherwise.
Fakon (as in fake bacon), and all its relatives – I’ve never understood why anyone would feel the need to make a veggie alternative look like meat. Putting fake fat marbling effects on strips of soy to make as baconesque as possible is just deeply wrong. The worst item of pretend meat I’ve seen were fake shrimps, even painted with food colouring to look like the real deal. Some vegetarians might miss meat, but personally I find it hugely unappetizing. If my meal looks like meat, it doesn’t look like food to me…
The worst offenders are the fake meats which try to imitate meat, in both appearance and taste. If I take a bite and panic that it might actually be real meat, then I don’t want to be eating it. Granted there is a certain satisfaction in taking my mother to a vegan buffet at which she believed herself to be eating meat (till she noticed the big sign and started backtracking and complaining), but if I wanted the flavour and appearance of meat then I wouldn’t be vegetarian at all! That said I know many vegetarians who wouldn’t share this opinion, but even those among my veggie friends who miss the flavour of meat don’t have any enthusiasm for fakon and its kin.
I also get very putt off by things like ‘vegetarian chicken’. I don’t want to eat chicken. It brings up all kinds of negative associations. It also implies that we vegetarians really do want meat deep down, and that we spend our lives denying ourselves this one tremendous desire. ‘Poor vegetarian, can’t have the real thing because of his/her morals, at least they can have an approximation of it to make their life bearable!’ – actually, no! There is a huge amount of alternatives, and they are great not because they closely resemble meat, but because they are totally different and tasty in their own right. And if you could magic up a lasagne made with minced beef that didn’t come from a cow and involved no cruelty at all, alongside one made with TVP, I would honestly choose the latter – I just happen to prefer it.
So, I say no to ‘fake meat’ and yes to all kinds of delightful ingredients which happen not to involve animals, and work wonderfully in all sorts of recipes where one might also have used meat.